As women in recovery, we were pleased to see “Clearing a path to sobriety” (Feb. 1) on local efforts to expand gender-specific treatment options for women. Many struggle with histories of trauma, mental health disorders and self-esteem challenges, while juggling the demands of employment, household management and caregiving for children, parents and family.
We were disappointed, however, to see treatment professionals using the loaded label “alcoholic,” instead of the more clinically accurate “alcohol (or substance) use disorder.”
Our culture has long viewed “alcoholism” as a moral failing and the “alcoholic” as morally deficient. We are grateful that education efforts from the treatment and recovery community are beginning to change that stigma. Despite those efforts, however, those of us in recovery know all too well that society continues to judge and shame people with substance use disorders. This can and does prevent women from seeking help.
The article points out that women are the fastest-growing demographic struggling with problematic drinking. We live in a culture that on the one hand normalizes alcohol and promotes the “pinking of drinking” with skinny cocktails and wines with names like “Girls Night Out,” and on the other hand blames and labels women when they are unable to manage the highly addictive liquid.
Each of us required professional help to make transformative changes. We know from our own experiences, as well as of other women we have met on our recovery journeys, how programs that require women to identify as “alcoholic” can discourage some of us from getting much-needed, potentially life altering support.
Our discomfort with the label is in no way a denial of the severity and impacts of our own drinking behavior or the potentially lifelong efforts necessary for recovery. And we have much love for our sisters and brothers who have found freedom and liberation in the word, which can help some understand the depths of a problem that is not rooted in their own moral failure. We absolutely support the right of people to self-identify as “alcoholic” if it works for them.
But when it comes to professional treatment, we advocate for diversity in programs and ask providers to embrace more nuanced language that leaves behind the cultural baggage associated with words like “alcoholic,” “addict” or “junkie.” After all, we know that recovery involves so much more than just avoiding alcohol or substances.
Recognizing that people are more than their disorders, the mental health community (which has deep intersections with the substance use disorder field) has intentionally worked to adopt person-centered language like “individual living with bipolar” rather than “manic depressive.” Words matter, which is why it’s been a long time since mental health providers could refer to clients as “insane” or “crazy.”
It’s time for treatment programs to move away from labels and instead use terminology that captures the multifaceted, complex dimensions of substance use and related disorders and experiences.
While all of us must reckon with our mistakes, words that trigger shame can derail recovery efforts or deter people from getting help. We need to support multiple pathways for recovery. As we work to expand treatment slots for women, let’s also open doors with more affirming language. Women’s lives could depend on it.
Becky von Fischer and Rebecca Wandrei live in the Twin Cities and participate in Women for Sobriety.